Amid turmoil, international Inuit group gathers online to promote protecting Arctic

With the continued COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, these ‘are not normal times’ for the Inuit

By: - July 22, 2022 5:55 am
A whalebone arch and an umiak frame, seen on Oct. 4, 2018, are landmarks on the beach at Utqiagvik, the northernmost U.S. community that is also known as Barrow. The display highlights the region's Inuit culture. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A whalebone arch and an umiak frame, seen on Oct. 4, 2018, are landmarks on the beach at Utqiagvik, the northernmost U.S. community that is also known as Barrow. The display highlights the region’s Inuit culture. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

For the organization that represents Inuit people in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia’s Chukotka region, work has been hampered by the same turmoil that has upended the rest of the world – political polarization, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the format of its quadrennial general assembly held this week was itself a sign of the challenges. The gathering, titled “Inuit – Strength and Peace,” was virtual, with delegations tuning in from their respective nations and regions.

“These are not normal times, and this is not a normal general assembly,” Jim Stotts, president of the ICC’s Alaska branch, said in remarks on the opening day. ICC-Alaska represents the state’s Inupiat and Yup’ik people, who share heritage with the Inuit in other nations.

To Stotts, recent years have been filled with disappointment about national and world events.

He confessed that four years ago, when he addressed the ICC’s last general assembly, held in 2018 in Utqiagvik, he didn’t think the situation in the United States could get worse. “Back then, I said it seemed like there was a war going on for the soul of America,” he said. It was the midpoint of the Trump administration, the term “climate change” was almost banned by the government and Inuit issues were set aside, he said. “Knowledge and science were replaced with conspiracy theories and lies,” he said.

But political polarization continues, with racism on the rise and rights of minorities and women being eroded, Stotts said. “Against this backdrop it’s difficult to promote the Inuit agenda in the us. It’s hard to compete for attention,” he said.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council's 14th General Assembly, titled "From a Foundation of Strength and Peace," was held virtually as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. (Image provided by ICC)
The Inuit Circumpolar Council’s 14th General Assembly, titled “From a Foundation of Strength and Peace,” was held virtually as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. (Image provided by the ICC)

Action on climate has not materialized as he had hoped it would, he said.

“The snow and ice that once protected us is melting away. We may have reached a tipping point with climate change,” he said. “It may be time to change our focus from thinking about changing the climate back to what it was and start thinking about surviving climate change. The time for more research projects and speeches is over. It’s time for action and mitigation and adaptation strategies.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stymied international Arctic cooperation, halting much of the work of the Arctic Council and other organizations, he said

“As a practical matter, it’s impossible to carry on discussions about the future of the Arctic when over half of the region is missing from the table. It’s also hard to sit across the table from Russia,” he said. It is harder to take the Russian government seriously, he said.

The head of Chukotka’s delegation to the assembly defended the Ukraine invasion.

“We, the Inuit of Chukotka who live in Putin’s Russia, would like to state support for our chief commander for what he’s doing right now,” Liubov  Taian said in remarks delivered Wednesday. “We hope to see respect for our patriotic feeling for how we support our president because we are part of our country.”

Taian characterized the invasion as a defense of democracy and freedom. “Right now we’re going to throw all of our efforts so that we would be able to prevent the proliferation of Nazism which we have seen in Ukraine right now. It will impact, also, the life in Inuit Nunaat,” she said, using the term for homeland.

Head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council's Chukotka delegation, Liubov Taian, at leaft, and fellow delegation member Galina Kanikhina, right, permform a traditional dance on July 17, 2018 at the ICC's 13th General Assembly in Utqiagvik. The 2022 general assembly was held online, with delegations tuning in from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka. Speaking to other ICC delegations participating in the virtual assembly, Taian defended Russia's invasion of Ukraine, (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s Chukotka delegation, Liubov Taian, at leaft, and fellow delegation member Galina Kanikhina, right, permform a traditional dance on July 17, 2018 at the ICC’s 13th General Assembly in Utqiagvik. The 2022 general assembly was held online, with delegations tuning in from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka. Speaking to other ICC delegations participating in the virtual assembly, Taian defended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Russian government has justified its invasion by claiming that Ukraine’s government and society are dominated by modern Nazis. The claim is false, Ukrainian government officials and the international community have said.

Despite the challenges, there were some significant accomplishments over the past by the ICC and related organizations that were celebrated during the virtual assembly.

Among the major ICC accomplishments were formal recognitions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Marine Organization.

The ICC was the first indigenous organization to be a contributing author of an IPCC report, and last year it became the first Indigenous organization to have been granted observer status at that international organization, said Dalee Sambo Dorough of Alaska, ICC’s outgoing international chair.

At the International Marine Organization, the ICC has now been granted provisional consultative status and is now able to participate in deliberations over regulation of Arctic shipping issues like fuel-oil use, pollution, ship noise and marine traffic awareness. The ICC was the first Indigenous organization to get this status, Dorough said.

Delegates and from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia gather at Barrow High School on July 19, 2018 for the closing day of the Inuit Circumpolar Council's 13th General Assembly in Utqiagvik. The 14th general assembly was held virtually. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Delegates and from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia gather at Barrow High School on July 19, 2018 for the closing day of the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s 13th General Assembly in Utqiagvik. The 14th general assembly was held virtually. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The ICC also completed a project that created protocols for ethical engagement with local communities by scientists and industry working in the Inuit Arctic homeland.

In Canada, the federal government last year enacted legislation to carry out the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Natan Obed, the head of Canada’s delegation to the assembly, said he hopes that follow-up action will make it easier for Inuit people to travel over national borders.

“It is frustrating that 45 years after the founding of ICC, we continue to be divided by overly restrictive U.S. and Danish national borders imposed on our homeland. We know how Canada’s immigration legislation needs to be amended in order to enable Inuit from Alaska and Greenland to freely enter and reside in Canada,” he said on Tuesday.

The assembly closed Thursday with the passage of a declaration and the election of a new international chair, Sara Olsvig of Greenland, to serve for the next four years, succeeding Dorough.

The declaration detailed ICC principles and goals for the coming years, including continued action on climate change, protection of ocean resources, pursuit of justice and advocacy of freer movement by Inuit across national borders.

An in-person delegates meeting is scheduled for July of 2023 in Ilulissat, Greenland.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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